Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, John Leguizamo and Sofia Vergara, with Scarlett Johannson, Bobby Cannavale, Robert Downey, Jr., Oliver Platt and Dustin Hoffman.
When chef Carl Casper simultaneously cracks up and hits career arrest, he looks around at the debris of his life and figures to pick up the pieces and start from scratch. To his surprise—and reluctance—he finds he’s not going it go it alone. When his estranged son comes to the fore, both literally and figuratively, he jogs Carl’s memory why he got into the biz in the first place: to make people happy.
As I have pointed out here at RIORI before, I make my living as a professional cook. If anyone has read such chef’s memoirs as Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential or Marco Pierre White’s The Devil in the Kitchen, then you know the life of a chef is rife with tales of melodrama, hardship, idiocy, elation, inebriation, dark humor, exhaustion and a multitude of adjectives that’ll make the regular schmo ask, “Why the f*ck would anyone do this for a living?”
I’m not quite sure myself.
This week’s installment tackles a story that is a distillation—a “greatest hits” if you will—about all the chaos and creation that it is to work as a chef in a high-end, high-pressure restaurant, and the fallout when things go all pear-shaped. And then and all the bullsh*t and ballyhoo that follows. Chef got it mostly right, albeit in a cursory sense, and if Bourdain and White experienced enough nuttiness to make books about the profession, you can be sure as eggs is eggs that all cooks carry around their own tales of grue.
I sure do. Here’s mine.
It’s a long one, far longer than the trip I took you on with the Control piece (vol, 2 , installment 26). Real long. I’m takin’ you into the belly of the beast. In any case, I’ve found that my readers have become increasingly patient (bless you), and allowed me some indulgence. Besides, all blogs wish to take their readers into the center of the mind. In sum, I’m really gonna blog out here, fer reel this time. Well, here we go, and again thank you. Once more, I insist you double-check your restraints. It is a very long ride. Probably longer than the cinematic flaying proper.
You sure you wanna keep reading? I’m warning you.
Okay. Don’t say I didn’t caution you. And, yes, I plan to eventually dissect this week’s movie also. Promise.
Light years ago when I was in culinary school, I spent six hours, five days a week in class and up to 8 hours, five nights a week slogging it out in a small seafood place on the line. The restaurant was a kind of bistro called a brasserie, which is basically a beer and wine bar that happened to also serve dinner. The clientele were way off kilter to give much a sh*t about the menu when they veered off course and bumped onto a four-top. Most of the regulars were the chef’s (drinking) buddies, so the place exuded a kind of retarded atmosphere akin to Cheers, minus classy dudes like Norm and Cliff.
The kitchen itself was the size of a matchbook. The walk-in was the dimensions of a phone booth. We didn’t even have proper dry storage; all our sundries were kept in the stairwell. It was stuffy, noisy, and lit with fluorescents so harsh it would peel your skin off. It paid peanuts and deprived me of much-needed rest and oxygen to attack class the next day. It was nice gig.
One day in class, my buddy Ralph addressed us fellow students that the restaurant where he was staging was going to hold their annual big Xmas banquet, and the chef would be grateful for any of us probies to come in and help prep for the big weekend. My schedule was relatively clear. I was part-time at Cheerless, known to be a newb student and therefore chattel and expendable. To put this into perspective about labor relations at my bistro, our dishwashers were on work-release, and yet still known to be unreliable no-shows. On more than one occasion an “Officer” would stroll in and do the Det. Munch thing with the boss. Besides, my boss was relatively sympathetic to any of my culinary school demands, so I managed to get to volunteer along with a pair of other guys. Little did I know then, but that was the start of my real culinary career. Kale not withstanding.
The place was quaintly called the Farmhouse. It was a smallish, white tablecloth restaurant that had once indeed been a farmhouse (the original barn on the property had been renovated to hold wedding receptions and the like). The place had a stellar reputation; one of the finest restaurants in the area, with a wine and beer list that put to shame my place’s meager offerings. The bar wasn’t the only aspect of the place that garnered attention. The Farmhouse based its fare—with a certain amount of modest pride—exclusively on a seasonal, sustainable menu and using local purveyors for its proteins and produce. You know, the whole “buy fresh, buy local” campaign that’s been so hot over the past few years? The Farmhouse had been following this practice since its inception. Back then, which wasn’t so much “then,” such practices were cutting edge. It was enough to get the chef of the Farmhouse the front page of the local lifestyle magazine as “Chef of the Year” back in 2007. It was big deal in our parts, since before there was no room in the local rags to even honor any chef, let alone the chef. Recall I was raised in a community that was last on the list to get Web access. 56k, no less.
Coincidentally, I had already been introduced to this bastion of contemporary cooking via my school’s semesterly “guest chef” week. Five days out of the program were given wholly up to the chosen chef and his crew to run the school’s kitchen with us students doing menial tasks. At the end of the final day, the host chef and we slaves were tasked to bang out a million covers for guests at the school’s public restaurant, all waiting on baited breath with us rubes working the line. It went well. It always went well with our instructors keeping point. But for me, I wasn’t around. I had to skedaddle off to my corner of the restaurant world (as did a few of my fellow working-class dolts) and miss the fireworks. We had our own fires to tend, as well as make sure our rent was paid on time.
But about a month before this trying week, the guest chef held hold a seminar for the would-be graduating class. It was mandatory attendance. Regardless of your sched out of class and onto work, attendance was mandatory. It also was a passive way that I was introduced to my future mentor.
Before I knew the guy as the guy—let’s call him Mike—he was obviously a chef. Not just wearing the whites, but he had this nervous demeanor about him—especially when he spoke; I guess he wasn’t much for public speaking—that screamed two things. One, he knew his sh*t and was eager to share what he knew in hopes to turn diners on to what he was all about. Two, he’d rather not be anywhere else than away from the kitchen. I later caught a glimpse of this in the school’s kitchen right before his crew took over and I took off to my belated shift at the bistro. But in front of us in the auditorium, despite his obvious scholarly passion for his craft, Mike was stiff. He kept composure well enough, and explained the philosophies of his restaurant in a thoughtful, engaging manner. But he had this faraway look in his eyes. It came later with little surprise that after Mike explained to us the sensible practices of buying local, using fresh and seasonal ingredients and being kind with the Earth, he passed his demo onto his guest, the head farmer at the nearby Liberty Gardens (more about that place later), who soberly explained what his farm was all about and the values of sustainable crops. I dug it immediately. I’ve always been anal, always wanting to be efficient and resourceful at all times. All his talk about local, seasonal, regional produce spoke volumes to me. It’s like what Teddy Roosevelt espoused: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Self-sufficiency. I was down with that. F*ck Monsanto.
In the school’s kitchen, however, the real Mike stepped in. He went over the menu, delegated authority, divvied up the class among him, his sous and his pantry chef to the execute proper tasks to handle for that night’s full house. He got to work with the aplomb of Orson Welles directing the Mercury Theatre on Red Bull. Like I said, the guest chef dinner was always a big deal, and folks would queue up by the dozens for the sumptuous five-course meal. At a reasonable price, no less, so nothing could afford to be left to chance. My cohorts were rounded up like so much cattle, plonked into whatever position they deemed valuable based on the teacher’s evaluation. There was a “ready, break!” moment and everybody scuttled away with a purpose. And that was evening one. God knows what the rest of the nights were like for my teenage, three-hots-and-a-cot counterparts. Mike was all over them like Rosie O’Donnell on a éclair. It was something to behold.
Me? I had to bounce, along with the three or four other guys in pursuit of the Yankee dollar. I was a bit bummed that I couldn’t hang back, witness the ensuing carnage. But hey, hookers don’t come cheap.
Kidding. Hookers are cheap.
Anyway, back to the seminar: afterwards we swooped about the demo table, taking photos of the sample dishes Mike cooked up and marveling at the delights the Liberty Gardens guy brought in. Ralph chatted up Mike and introduced me. Again, Mike seemed pleasant enough—albeit a bit haughty and awkward—and I talked about sustainability with him, thought his menu was great and characteristically said so. He knew it was, of course. Anyway, that’s when Ralph and eventually I caught wind of the Farmhouse’s upcoming Xmas bash.
What happened next that ultimately directed my restaurant career took place over three weeks, but it’s better summed up in three days. The first and the third things were, as narrative structure goes, the problem and the resolution (as well as another prologue). That’s how it went in my mind. It might get confusing, but pay attention. It’ll eventually make sense if you don’t think too hard. I suggest a shot at this point.
After Ralph’s announcement to the class about Mike needing extra hands for Xmas, and me sensing an opportunity, I had asked permission of my boss to take the weekend off. Mike was a local celebrity amongst the restaurant community, and my boss understood my request and honored it…so long as I worked a full week next week, including dishwashing since one of our rent-a-cons vanished. I agreed, he agreed. I even got an actual note from one of my instructors declaring my urgent presence at the Farmhouse. My boss smartly slapped it away and told me to get shucking those damned oysters.
That was day one. We now jump to day three.
Day three is a little trickier. I guess it was really over the night into said day, since last call around here is 2. It happened after my restaurant’s usual epic New Year’s dinner. In fact, it happened on January 2.
After service, me and the crew would cross the street and tie a few off at the local watering hole. The place was small, almost as small as our kitchen. Anyway, way led onto way, and the cramped quarters and loud music demanded that if the patrons wanted to have a feasible conversation, they would literally have to get up in each other’s faces. My boss, his sous, the roundsman and I were getting pretty tight. Actually, my boss was already tight when he eventually showed up. After service, while we three went to clean up the kitchen, he’d go hassle the bartender and eentually disappear. Dinner service ended at 9 during the week, 11 on the weekends. The boss would sometimes resurface like a lost specter around…well, after that.
In any case, all of us were f*cking around at the bar, getting pished and sweating out that night’s strife. My boss was on a tear, undone by stress and alcohol. When I say undone, I mean it. As an example of his wound-up temperament, he once excoriated me for scooping up the mail from the post out front. One time I noticed the fistful of bills. When I offered up the letters, he snatched them out of my hand and curtly told me not to remind him of how many bills he owed, Stupid. By the way, that my was nickname there: Stupid. Go public school!
So we were yammering about some dumb sh*t when I got the foolish, drunken idea to punk the roundsman—my boss’ good buddy—by stealing and hiding his keys. My boss tore into me. A lot of cussing and flailing of arms, with much spittle. He went on and on about his crew were family—and I soon inferred, was not—and how dare I f*ck around and I didn’t respect his biz and I didn’t know sh*t from shinola and didja have fun at the Farmhouse and I’ll see you tomorrow, Stupid. Something like that. I was drunk and half-deaf. He could’ve been reciting the opening voiceover to Star Trek and I was probably nodding…well, stupidly.
The next day when I showed up for service, the boss met me at the door. He was carrying my box of mixtapes I had on hand for music during prep. He shoved them at me and said that my services weren’t needed there anymore. Something about not having enough room at the back of the house. I was stunned. Regardless of the place’s financial straits, I hardly thought my relatively short shifts five days a week at 10 an hour was that much of a strain. Hell, my boss was able to put away the equivalent of my weekly wages over the weekend across the street. I’m no expert, but I’d like to think the fracas at the bar had more to do with my dismissal than his ever-dwindling lines of credit.
An interesting aside: not long after my firing, the place folded. The joint was running in the red well before I came onboard, unbeknownst to me. The boss packed it in. He had often said, “if one more thing goes wrong…” a lot. In literature we call this a portent. The closing wasn’t long after his wife suffered a terrible accident. It was the one more thing. I heard about it through the restaurant grapevine years later. The former roundsman’s testimonial got regaled with gory details via the sous at the restaurant I was then laboring at. The sous and he were buds, and we both were already well aware of his propensity for telling tall tales. This one wasn’t.
There was a nasty incline screwing down into my place of old restaurant. The joint was essentially in the basement of an office tower, nary a spit from the parking deck. It’s well-known to the locals that we get often get icy winters here. Snow? It’s fickle. Ice? Just wake up the next day. Anyway, it turned out that incline was the undoing of my old bistro. The boss’ wife took a nasty spill; cracked her head on the sidewalk that required immediate ER attention. The long and the short, she ended up suffered long-term amnesia. For real, not that soap opera sh*t. My former boss had to spend—waste—months convincing this woman that he was her husband and they once had a life together. All she could remember after the accident was waking up in the ER. It was like that Adam Sandler movie, only not funny, even more so.
I never learned much beyond that story, except that the guy who was notorious for spreading tall tales didn’t smile when he told that one. At least according to my sous.
Where was I? Oh yeah, right. You still here? Really? Hey, thanks.
On to the next day at school on Monday. Cruelty regulates in the food biz that most Sundays and Mondays are given over to recovery from hangovers, compact family time and retool the menu for the coming week, in that order. Me? Not so much on the second and third things. The next class day, Ralph asked me about my New Year’s. I told him I got the sack. He looked shocked and sorry. I shrugged; I needed help. I had a fiancée and a pair of kids. I asked him, “If you know anywhere…?”
That was day three.
Ralph informed me that the dishwasher at the Farmhouse took off. There was an immediate opening, and Ralph assured me his word was golden. I was desperate, and there was that weekend at the Farmhouse where I was slave labor. Y’know, at Mike’s plea.
The night before the big event, I got to see Mike in full mufti. Ralph, myself and two other daring souls showed up at the Farmhouse’s expansive kitchen. Well, expansive to me. Remember, at the joint where I worked, we had to pay an oxygen tax. The Farmhouse’s kitchen was no less than a canyon when I walked in, still dressed in the dumb school whites, replete with fluffy hat no less. Presently, I wear two sets of uniforms when on the job: a polite, short sleeved, light cotton Bragard number with my name embroidered on the chest and black pants. Off site, for the occasional catering gig, I wear an all-black ensemble with checks. To this day, I find white aprons stupid (more on aprons later). My wardrobe notwithstanding, I looked the part. Enough so to fit into this maelstrom of cooking.
The kitchen proper was an addition to the original farmhouse. It even had a loft where extra dry storage was housed. The place was the size of a gym, but one wouldn’t have figured so that night. The kitchen was packed to the gunwales with Mike’s staff, ancillary bodies that were friends of the restaurant, legacies and, well, us guys. It was elegant, organized chaos; it was noisy, hot and simmering with productivity. This was gonna be a dinner for twice the restaurant’s usual capacity, and the guests were expecting a lot of gastronomic wonders and perhaps some healthy ego fluffing (the local state rep was in attendance). We all had our tasks laid out for us, Mike running point like Scorsese with a clipboard, ensuring all was on time and on task. It was a four-hour marathon run, maybe longer.
Hapless Ralph, our two comrades and myself were assigned the scutwork; menial work and the usual unglamorous detailing that made the meal go over cleanly. We were tasked to roast and later dissect lobster tails, peel and chop Brussels sprouts and parcook risotto for its station on the patio. Stuff like that, while the extended Farmhouse family worked the sauces and fabricated the meat.
I soon received my “special” assignment.
I standing around. Despite the crazed activity, I was looking for something to do. Anything than looking like a lazy bump on a log. Mike grabbed and dragged me over to the pantry station. He told me I had a vital duty to perform. I did? Mike produced a wheel of parmesan cheese the size of a radial tire and thumped the smelly thing in front of me like a dead body.
“We need shaved parm for the risotto bar. A lot of it. You need a peeler?”
I warily said I owned one as I unfurled my knife roll. This was good. Mike needed a metric sh*ton of shaved parm to suit his needs.
“Get at it. I’ll be back.” And off he went to tangle with the rest of the crew.
I considered my opponent, this edifice of properly-aged, very heavy cheese. I hefted it in my arms. It was a dense as a neutron star and smelled like a Sicilian gym locker in July. But it was now my quarry, my duty to render this hunk into feasible slivers to be melted into steaming risotto. And the chef told me to get on it. So I did.
Over a seemingly interminable length, I whittled away at the tire, becoming ever more annoyed by its rank and its defiance of being reduced to shreds. I eventually had to toss the peeler after the task; it became as sharp and a bowling ball. Mike swooped in occasionally to check on my progress.
“How’s it going, Cheeseman?” he’d say, regarding my shavings, then swoop away to oversee another piece of the eventual whole. Once in awhile, he’d again hove into my radar and check on my progress.
“Looking good, Cheeseman.”
“Go, go, go…”
“How’s it comin’, Cheeseman?”
He eventually forgot about me. With all the activity blurring around me, still being a newb and too timid to question a chef’s orders, I just kept peeling away at the tire, rolling my eyes, feeling carpal setting in and wondering if I had chosen the right profession.
After endlessly referring to my phone for what the hell time it was, I sooner or later met reconnoiter with Mike. There was a veritable haystack of parm shavings littering the table. The wheel was two-thirds gone. An hour and half had passed. My wrist was very angry with me.
Mike saw my work and laughed his ass off.
“You can stop now, Cheeseman. It’s only for 100 people.”
I regarded the hillock on the table—so high you’d need to plant a flag at the peak—looked Mike in the eye and watched him just keep on laughing. I think he almost pissed himself.
“Sorry,” he said between chuckles. “I should’ve checked on you earlier.” Then he doubled over and pointed at the Everest-like mound of smelly cheese and said, “You’re done, Cheeseman. Good work. Go downstairs, the bar. Have a beer on me.”
So I did, reeking of cheese. I had two beers, and then resumed my post back at Grand Central for my next task, shucking a cove’s worth of oysters. Ce-la-vie-de-merde. I was supposed to man the risotto station that night, but Mike felt—after my dedication to fabricating cheese—I’d be better suited as a roundsman, being the sous’ bitch for the rest of the night.
Anyway, it all went off with barely a hitch, thank you very much. The only crisis that occurred was that we couldn’t get the burner under the risotto station to remain lit. In hindsight, I guess my downgrade was in fact a blessing. At around 1 AM, when all the revelers had gone home to bed, Mike cracked open a case of the bar’s finest IPA and we all got two bottles each. Ralph and I were legal. Our culinary school compatriots, not so much. We told them to drink up anyway. It was a salute to a job well done. And it was f*cking free, so don’t rock the boat. I got home to the girl at around 2:30 AM. I truth I eventually had more than just two bottles, talking sh*t with Mike the bartender into the wee hours of the night. Don’t worry, she understood and made me change the kid’s diapers all week. Fair is fair.
She was all very awake and excited to hear about my adventure. I was whipped, drunk and happy, and regaled my experience with much relish and how cool Mike had seemed, despite the whole tire-whittling. She told me it sounded great, and was very proud of me. We got romantic and I collapsed for most of Sunday. Overall, a smart move. Hell, there was still Monday class to consider.
So those were the three days—three acts in a minor play—that eventually led to my reluctant position as head chef of the one of the most revered, progressive restaurants in southeastern PA. Hell, at first all I needed was a job, and them pots done ain’t gonna scrape themselves, boy howdy.
Look, I understand the story I’ve been relating is far from linear. Deal. Be honest, how many tabs do you open on Safari at a time scouring Facebook feeds, Tweets, porn, e-mail, iMessages and porn at a given moment? Right. Here I’m offering up straight story in related context and alla dat. Can you handle it?
Hey, you’re still here. Kewl. And there’s this thing about a movie I saw coming up. Thanks.
So there I found myself, standing in Mike’s office, getting the rundown. His sudbuster (a term I later found out that Mike had never heard of, but quickly adapted to the Farmhouse slang-wagon) had gone off to greener pastures, and the kitchen needed those dishes run through and the pots scrubbed all shiny-like. He grilled me; gave me the Logan and Briscoe routine, and declared, “We do everything here one way: the right way.”
God help me, I actually rolled my eyes. I said, “But Chef, I’m just the dishwasher.”
He cocked a brow and said, “And you’ll do it the right way.”
And so I did. I whiled the evenings away at the Farmhouse scrubbing pots, running dishes the through the machine, doing odd prep work and enduring Mike’s demented and rather patronizing sense of humor. For weeks, months, I was not me; I was the Cheeseman. “Cheeseman, do this!” “Hey, Cheeseman, I need a solid!” “How’s it going, Cheeseman?” And into the sink another pot. I was reasonably happy. I was glad to have the work. This was during the “Great Recession” so any gig that paid was a good one. I had a girl at home and a pair of kids to support. Right. So I didn’t bitch, even with the dumb “Cheeseman” tag.
So that’s how it went on. Mike and his sous churning and burning. The pantry chef baking—we’ll call her Jen—making things sweet and not shy in having utter disdain for my ass. And me scrubbing pots, running plates and flatware through the reliably unreliable machine, which on several occasions I had to reach down into the temperamental garbage disposal with a naked arm to retrieve an errant knife or fork gumming up the works, all the time having Jen glower at me, since her station was adjacent to the trough. It was fun. Sadistic, but fun. I’m a Warren Zevon disciple, so that might explain millions.
All this time, I still had to make my morning appearances at school. I burned lean tissue in the midday and grunted off the Farmhouse to scrub my paycheck into action at night. To say that I was tired as well feeling like I was going nowhere—my recent dismissal from my old gig still weighing on my mind—was akin to saying that the Atlantic Ocean was somewhat damp.
Then one day the weird happened. Out of nowhere Mike’s sous dropped a bomb. He was out by the end of the week right before business was to be picking up. I spoke with him after service and asked what gives? He said he wanted to engage in his side gig as a full time effort, working with audio equipment. He also disclosed that he was pursuing some girl, of all things. On the evening of his last service, we had some celebratory beers, bid him his fare-thee-wells and out the door he went, into the night and obscurity. Standing in the doorway, Mike turned to me and shouted these immortal words:
“All right, Cheeseman! Looks like you’re on sauté!”
I stammered, “But chef, I haven’t done sauté yet.”
Mike beamed at me. “You’re gonna learn!”
And learn I did. Fast. I applied what limited dirty tricks I learned from school and toppled onto the line. Even though Mike had the reputation of being kind of a prick, he was no less helpful and gracious towards me. Maybe it was because he was suddenly in dire straits, and needed all the help he could get, so being nice to his new, rube sous was the best way to coax acceptable results. Me? I think I just made him laugh a lot and that was enough.
After some stumbling, and a lot of pressure remedied by endless cigarettes and gallons of coffee, Mike and I were churning and burning with the best of them. He worked the grill and I sauté. He did sauces and handled beef, chicken and other former animals, I wrangled fish and veggies. I also had to do a great deal of the prep work, including fabricating said fish, tending to mollusks to make sure they were alive before service, give Jen a hand (when she’d let me) and hacking up a lot of herbs and veggies. I learned a lot, including some really kooky sh*t one would never learn in culinary school. Call them quirks of any run-of-the-mill, mad genius, bipolar chef. No cheese with fish. Blanch and shock all green veggies and herbs save sorrel, which turns a sickly, poop brown otherwise. Store mussels in a colander of ice, towels and ice. Solicit local farms for the freshest, sustainable ingredients. Always use a half apron, because it can double as a dry towel, as well used as a basket when grabbing things from the walk-in and demanded you work clean so not splatter any sh*t on your freshly pressed whites. No cheese with fish. Y’know, the kind of things you figure out standing up rather than sitting down. Big fun.
Business went on that way for months, Mike grilling, me with the pans. The regular crowd would shuffle in. Even Jen began to tolerate, even enjoy my presence. Mike began to have some faith in me. I didn’t do any major f*ck-ups overall (save once serving a steaming bowl of dead mussels), and was on time, tidy and kept the guy laughing a lot. All to the beckoning of “Cheeseman, do this!” and “Cheeseman, do that!” I was a good little elf and always did this and that without hesitation. To do otherwise was a stoning offense.
One day, Mike dragged me aside and asked me a rather curious question. I had been an obedient soldier for months, racking up the hours, breaking down way too much salmon and halibut and tooling with the menu under Mike’s watchful eye.
“Nate,” he said, holding that week’s paycheck in his hand, “I got a weird question to ask.”
“…What’s your last name?”
I blinked. I warily told him.
Mike began to snicker. He was finally going to wire me up into the system rather than pay me under the table, turned out.
“Good to know,” he stated soberly, “because I’ve been making out your checks to ‘Nate Cheeseman’ for the past few months.”
It’s nice to be respected.
Weeks on end Mike and I would crank it out. I’d still do odd prep, and he’d manage the menu and ensure everything went smoothly. And smoothly it went, for a while. I sensed after a time Mike was not happy in his post. He got mopey, leaned into me often (because, hey, I was there) and eventually took to a few shots down at the bar during the afternoon. You see, this biz can burn you out quick. The long hours. Always on your feet. The stagnant heat. The endless picking up this and setting down that. And all the time making errands to the local purveyors and stores to make sure what was brought to the table was the finest available. It was a grind, and I think that Mike was feeling the grind. But there was a nice, bright spot during those trying times that spoke to the finest.
Speaking of the finest, here’s my aside about the coolest farm I ever had the pleasure of stomping through: Liberty Gardens. I told you about more later on, remember? See? I didn’t forget you.
The Farmhouse was stationed in this little ville nary far from farmland. You could decide some Sunday to go for a spin away from the main drag and find yourself in God’s country; small farms, fisheries and independent oases of holy meal out there in the brush. One time, Mike dragooned me into a trip to see where the magic was made. He drove; I sat shotgun, very curious about where the hell he was taking me. En route, he got all philosophical about the veggies we used at the restaurant. I love veggies. I’ve never been a fruit guy, as my family can attest. I’d rather curl up to a nice helping of broccoli than a fresh apple. Sorry. It’s just how I roll.
Anyway, on this little junket, Mike disclosed a little news. Soon after I got my battlefield commission as sous chef, he laid some science on me.
“How long have you been here, Cheeseman?”
“I dunno, chef. Since January?”
“And what’ve you been pulling?”
“…Nine an hour.”
He nodded. “Well, I’ve decided to jump you up a bit, now since you’re not just the sudbuster (he did indeed like that term) anymore. Did you enjoy busting suds, Cheeseman?”
“That’s good. You’ve done all right by me. So I’ve decided to bump you up to twelve dollars. How’s that sound?”
I said nothing.
“I know that [the owner] wouldn’t like it, but figure since you’ve been so good at being my go-to guy, you deserve full pay. How’s that work for you?”
“Thanks, chef.” What more could I say?
“Where are we going?”
“Where we get our greens. I figure since you’re now working on the line, you needed to see the source.”
So we wended our way in his beater Subaru wagon along the twisting country roads afar from the home base. The further we drove, the less and less the surroundings looked like civilization that was only five miles away. I kept the window rolled down to half mast and was understandably curious about our destination.
Liberty Gardens is the local sustainable, seasonable garden spot where I live. It’s a small farm, barely five acres (give or take) with open rows of whatever fruits and veggies were sprouting that season—tomatoes in the summer, pumpkins in the fall—along with carefully tended greenhouses either nurturing herbs or securing seedlings for the next season. When we arrived, Mike went to chat with the farmer that graced our presence the time he commanded the school’s demo to negotiate prices for the new menu. I went scooting over to the rows and invaded the greenhouses to see what wonders awaited. Never had I seen such produce. Leafy greens and bright fruits. Fresh herbs you smell upon entering. Micro greens. A lot of heirloom stuff too weak for the current season but, rest assured, would be readily forced for the next. Curiously, there were remnants of rotting pumpkins slanting the rows of corn just beginning to sprout up. I later asked the farmer—whose name is unfortunately lost to memory—what was up with the rotting pumpkins along the rows. It was April, long before and beyond pumpkin season. He told me that the decaying gourds served as active fertilizer for the summer crops. In simpler terms, don’t f*ck with nature, just ride along. I was impressed. I asked Mike if we could score some kale and he grinned at me like a toddler taking his first steps and said something like, “Sure, Cheeseman.”
The farmer asked about the “Cheeseman” thing. No matter.
Back to the front:
So Mike grew increasingly unhappy with his station. It was mostly due to the constant interactions with the owner, who seldom made appearances unless something was going wrong. I learned quick that there are few restaurateurs active in their own businesses on a casual level. It’s when things were approaching the red that they made their presence known. Often bearing a scowl.
Mike took to frequenting the bar a little too often and a little too early. He tried to hold his own, but sometimes John Barleycorn grabbed the reigns. I recall one time Mike had some big expo set up for a bunch of curious housewives on how to poach eggs or some other dumb sh*t. He had a three-day growth and staggered over to me and asked, “Cheeseman, can you smell whiskey on me?”
“You smell like a bag of dicks. You going to talk to these women?”
He smiled and strolled off to the barn. He held a finger to his lips. I went back to maiming halibut. Miraculously, the hausfraus managed to learn all about the magic of quinoa unfettered by Jameson’s.
Then the day came. Or rather, the day before the day. Yeah, everything is out of order. Such can be the nature of the restaurant biz.
Not long after his wobbly appointment with the future fans of Fifty Shades of Grey, Mike took me aside into his office—the walk-in. It was early May and he had some serious news to share. He informed me that at the end of the summer he was resigning his post at the Farmhouse. Without going into great detail, he said he was unhappy, being undermined and did not want his baby to succumb to the latest food crazes Emeril would shake the dust from. Something like that. He asked me, “So, Cheeseman. You with me?”
I took his invite seriously. He wanted me to follow him. And by me following his example (minus the “not shaving” part), I frankly said, “I’m with you, chef.”
He smiled and patted me on the shoulder. “That’s good. Thank you.”
The next day wasn’t so good. The day.
It was the Thursday before Mother’s Day. After Xmas and Valentine’s, Mom’s Day is probably the one for the most heated contest on a one-night flight all year. The second Sunday is looms large for restaurant schedules. In short, a big deal. The Farmhouse was booked solid for the holiday. Over 100 guests. Not bis, but this place only accommodated 60 a night comfortably, and there was no drape over the patio, either. And to top it all off, all the rez were more or less staggered in 10 minute intervals. That meant maybe a party of five or ten every ten minutes wanted meals, like, yesterday. Like I said, a big deal. Mom’s Day is like Black Friday in spring for eateries. Mike had been poring over the menu for a week, and the menu was more or less locked and loaded.
Then the day happened. The aforementioned Thursday.
I was in the kitchen, not doubt destroying some fish when I heard the screams. We all heard the screams. Me, Jen and the new roundsman who had been on Wednesday just an eager server to learn the ropes at the back of the house. More secure money than tips, after all.
The yelling progressed up from the basement bar, through the wait station and came crashing through the kitchen like a bull on crystal meth. Mike was furious. He stormed about the kitchen in a frenzy, more or less speaking in tongues and exclaiming sh*t about “not being some housekeeper.” He tore into the closet, scooped up his books, dropped them, attacked the oven and broke the door, uplifted the prep table and let it crash down (cracking the tiles in the process) and careened out the back door in a torrent of profanity.
Myself, the newb roundsman and Jen just stared at the swinging screen door.
The owner slammed through the kitchen door and stared where we were staring. Then he dumbly looked at us. I took point and darted toward the door.
I stood stupidly in the parking lot watching Mike kick up clouds of gravel and dust as his Subaru flew off like all the demons of Hell were after him. I remember holding a pair of tongs in one hand and a side towel in the other. It’s funny what one recollects. My mouth was agape save for two words.
“Mike just quit,” the owner announced as I staggered back into the kitchen. Duh. I went from shocked to scared to pissed in a nanosecond. I followed Mike’s lead and slammed down onto the contacts on my phone.
“It’s all yours now, Cheeseman!” he screamed.
“The f*ck you talking about?”
“…What about our deal?” I asked, recalling the confab in the walk-in. I was younger then. I’ve since learned that nothing—nothing—is secret in the biz, even if for the cold silence of the walk-in.
I grimaced, feeling my bile rising. I was betrayed! And Mom’s Day less than two days away! I actually talked through clenched teeth.
“Okay…Mike! So what do you suggest I do now?”
“Damned if I know. Good luck!” And he clicked off.
Later, Jen, the roundsman and myself stood in the driveway, shocked and slack jawed. Now what? It was Thursday. Friday was booked solid. The chef bailed. I had half a menu in my head and sense of obligation. I did what any sane man who cooked for a living would do.
I called my girl.
In short, I yelped at her, “Mike left! Mother’s Day! Pants and ankles!”
She was beside herself, beside me. I needed a shoulder and she politely reminded me of the phone bill. I verbally knelt down and blubbered about me not being qualified to do this sh*t, despite what Mike had taught me. I was a wreck and she wrecked me futher.
In simple words, imitating dozens of Hallmark cards, “You can do this.”
After the dust began to settle, I found myself with my peers exchanging looks and sharing panic. I tried my best to be composed and delegate authority; I tried to talk out what the new plan was, but I was seriously lacking. In short, I stood there with my c*ck in my hand. There was no new plan. So much so that Jen called me out.
“Wait! You are not the boss now!”
But under the f*cked up circumstances, I was. And I had to get to class tomorrow morning, too. This is why God invented reefer.
(Hey. You still awake? Awesome, and thanks. We will get to the movie. I mean it. Jeez, look at all the pages…)
So what did we do? Pulled the plug on Friday’s reservations, that’s what. We told the guests that the chef had an emergency to tend to and they could reschedule for Saturday night.
Saturday night? Remember Mom’s day? We were already booked solid! And we were gonna squeeze in, like, fifty other bodies? Yes, yes we are. The show must go on, and I was in the director’s chair. Despite my “battlefield commission,” most of next day’s prep in the can, and me manning sauté for months with very few hitches, I mustered up some nerve and explained to the co-owners we couldn’t cancel Saturday night and lose all that money, as well as lose face and reputation in the local restaurant community. Unlike the saying, bad press with restaurants is bad press. Dinner was going to go off as planned, and hopefully not like nuclear test.
What the hell was I thinking?
So Saturday night came. I showed up for the grind and around 7 AM. Service in ten hours. Remaining prep was squared away—the sh*t you could only take care of the day of service—and additional servers were on call and at the ready (more on that hitch later). The menu was in place. It was prix fixe, thank God, meaning there were only a few set meals the guests could order. I had even mended the oven door. When H-hour arrived, we figured we were ready to go. Seventy-five to 100 guests were on the books between 6 and 7:30 pm. My sauté station was loaded for bear with salmon, scallops, assorted greens and grains and a bucket of coffee. I had our baker, who was usually stationed in the basement creating wedding cakes on the grill. Her job was to sear duck, and just that.
She lamented, “I haven’t done this since culinary school.”
“Well, you’re gonna remember!” I stated. Mike’s words coming out my mouth.
The first tables arrived, and my motley crew began that long night of dancing, heat and much profanity. I’ll spare you most of the gory details, but I handled like 75 percent of the action that night, also running point over at our baker to make sure she wasn’t burning anything. Jen was a whirl of activity on the pantry. At the time she was, like, 13 months pregnant and rightfully cranky and weary most of the time, but she was a pro and a little something like the executive chef going off on an ozone trip wasn’t going to set her back. Or any of us. Away we went.
The first hour was a blur. I churned out the dishes like a dervish crackhead on truck stop speed, getting plates up on the pass as fast as I could while the printer chattered an endless litany of tickets. Faces of people I have never seen before were scooping up the entrees and bearing them off as fast as a new body poked their puss onto the line. Prior to service, and seeing all those fresh faces in the kitchen, I had to ask the owner where they all came from.
“Friends of the family,” he said plainly. “Some of them used to work here, wanted some extra cash.”
I was astounded. This extended family of the Farmhouse, most of whom were already well versed in Mom’s Day dinner, was a godsend. But it also made me feel even smaller, a rube like me, still a culinary student and the former dishwasher only 5 months ago. What the f*ck had I gotten myself into?
Service was truly organized chaos. I keep telling the servers to stall for time, gimme at least another five minutes here and there. Mo (whom later became a fast friend) was the maître’d and was the first person to (accidentally) call me “chef” during the havoc. Before service I was very testy, nervous. Running around to make sure nothing was left for chance. One thing was left for chance, however. Our roundsman bailed for that evening; I was a body short. I later learned he felt he couldn’t handle the pressure of that night’s service.
Well, me neither. Pussy.
As I was pinballing around the kitchen, checking this and pointing fingers and generally acting snippy and dickish (again, shades of Mike), I grew increasingly curt to all these new bodies that now were clogging my kitchen. “My kitchen.” Good Lord, here comes the neighborhood. Mo had gotten in my way I got huffy and rude (Me? Nooooo) to her, and belted out orders with not my indoor voice. After service I learned that Mo had a chat with the owner about yours truly. It went something like this:
“Where did you find this dick?”
The owner told the whole bloody story to her; Mike bailing…former dishwasher…still in culinary school…hail, Columbia…She later bought me a beer. Several, actually. And several more. I didn’t remember Sunday.
To say that I was in the weeds was a gross understatement. Weeds? I was in the f*cking triple canopy jungle. All the extra bodies made the kitchen hotter than usual, and all the commotion and chattering made it stridently loud. I kept having to shout at Mo about two things: what the next ticket was (before it was printed up) and please, try and slow it down. After my umpteenth plea she said, “We can’t go any slower, chef.”
It was more, more, more. Mo did her best to keep things smooth, and kept water bottles always on hand. The guests’ orders grew into a maw that could not be fed. I had to keep seriously hydrated to keep my hands from shaking. Like all other joints I had worked at, family meal was a luxury. I had been working solely on one bowl of cereal and two pots of coffee that day with a Red Bull enema to keep things running smoothly. Faster, faster, faster the tickets spewed from the chatterbox. The boards were always on fire; the slide looked like a steamer of pennants cordoning off a user car lot. Tickets upon tickets upon tickets. I did my damnedest to keep time on task. The baker would look over at me and asked if I needed any help. I just barked at her to mind the duck and to remind her how to first score it and later cut it for plating. I figured she was deep in thought about future batches of crème anglaise going sour (come to think of it, so was I). All the while I had the entire Hüsker Dü catalog caroming about my brainpan. When I get stressed out on the line, I get a certain song stuck in repeat banging around my head. That night it was “It’s Not Funny Anymore” played at 11.
Simply put, the remainder of the push was an endless loop of Hüsker Dü, seared duck, and plate after plate after plate. I had a coward’s stripe of sweat streaking down the back of my coat. My balls had retreated to the relative safety of my stomach. My hands worked faster than the sane synapses my brain could synch. I had Mike’s bellow in my ears, Cheeseman (as well as my own voice: f*ckin’ Cheeseman). Spittle on my lips, pistou on my apron, ring molds getting sticky with abuse and endless fillets of salmon mocking me. And all this time I had two sour thoughts stuck in my mind like thorns: 1) Goddam it, Mike, and; 2) I hadn’t ever tackled sauté in school yet. I should’ve called in Ralph for an assist. Come to think of it, I did call Ralph, but only to let him know our benefactor jumped ship. I’m such a tool.
More, more, more…
Finally, three interminable hours later, 130-plus covers handled, the boards on fire all f*cking night, and dessert orders eventually trickling in, I relieved our baker to help Jen with the sweets. I killed the gas, threw about a jillion spent sauté pans on the floor, tore off my apron, grabbed two bottles of water and my pack of smokes and went outside. It was much cooler out there in the herb garden. I collapsed on a bench and tried to get my eyes refocused. When my hands quit trembling enough, I brought a cigarette to my lips and tried to light it. It was my third one all day.
As I flicked the Zippo, I noticed a large, red welt on my inner arm. I had burned myself earlier in the day doing…something. Then it was just a small bump. After the heat of service the thing had swelled to the size of an angry, mocking tumor in need of surgery. I barely remember getting burnt and went to inspect the damage. I poked it gently with my finger and the damned thing exploded, sending hot fluid across my arm in an acidic ejaculation with stinging dermis beneath. Ow. Amazingly, it was the only injury suffered all day, and at my hand, no less. Call it the only luck I got that night. I still have the scar, and wear it as a badge of pride, if not a cautious reminder.
The plates were out. They were received in a reasonably timely fashion. Much wine flowed and much giddiness wafted into the kitchen from the dining room. The servers—who I’ve since learned are the most vital form of intel in a restaurant after the bartender; disregard the chef and definitely the owner—reported back with tales of satisfaction and contentment. Nothing was sent back. My two teammates rose to the occasion and Mom’s Day 2010 was fun at the Farmhouse. That’s all anyone could ask for on a holiday. Or your everyday Saturday night, for that matter. I had already finished up my break by pissing urine the color of a traffic cone—a sure sign of dehydration—on the mint and chives. Didn’t seem to affect their growth over the next week.
I manned the kitchen for the rest of the summer until a new, “proper” chef was hired. In the interim, I retooled the menu with variations on Mike’s dishes applying swindles I had learned in class. I was in constant contact with the purveyors—including Liberty Gardens and a keen Aussie gent who was all about sustainable fish—made the orders, even tweaked to sound system in the place to accommodate an iTunes account rather than the same ten CDs on terminal rotation (Thursday became Van Morrison night). And I demolished many, many more fish carcasses.
After Mother’s Day, the best (and come to think of it) only complement I ever got was from a table that didn’t know Mike had quit. They were on the books for Mom’s Day 2010, and found their meal delightful. They even came back. It is here I allow some back patting.
I managed to keep the Farmhouse running relatively smooth for the rest of the summer (including de-greasing the hoods for the first time since Carter was inaugurated). Business went on, and I didn’t see any such action after the Mom’s Day avoided catastrophe. I even got a thank you from the owner—a usually laconic soul—for keeping his biz alive. Okay, a second complement. I’ll take two over one over the usual none I’ve learned to expect from this cutthroat business.
Before I wrap up this tale from the front (“Oh, thank God!”), one more silly detail. It was customary for Mike to put his name at the bottom of his menus. You know, “John Doe, Executive Chef.” The owners and I thought this tradition should continue, to keep some sense of stability while we were staggering through the upheaval. Being a Francophile, I thought up this title. It seemed to sum up my tenure at the Farmhouse:
Chef d’la Maison. It means, literally, “Chef in the meantime.” Looked good on the menu, too. So there you go.
I’ve since moved on from the Farmhouse and have bounced around the local, incestuous restaurant community in our neck of the woods. What happened to me, despite it being so longwinded, is not that uncommon in the restaurant world. It’s like when Paul Walker assumed the role of coach in Varsity Blues. Weird, frantic sh*t are watchwords of this industry. As well as this dictum one of my instructors would beat us about the head with: “Get it done!” And to quote MythBusters: “Failure is always an option.” We hope it never gets to that point, but it does loom large over our operations.
Even though my tawdry tale is almost exclusively about sh*t going haywire, it’s not an isolated incident. Any nabob who’s tuned into an ep of Hell’s Kitchen can witness the carnage, although on the idiot box the calamity is ramped up to 11 (makes for better ratings),can understand that both shoes may drop at any given moment. Be it f*cked up dishes, purveyors f*cking up their orders, the fryer f*cking implodes, the servers being f*cking idiots, the dishwasher’s on a drunk and doesn’t f*cking show up let alone call in, the guests don’t give a f*ck about restructuring their order to accommodate their f*cking gluten allergy they’re suffering from that week, or the chef himself under such duress is hiding at the bar for a full hour before service so he can nice and f*cked up.
(Wait! Is the blog dude actually getting to the movie’s synopsis and critique now? Yes, the blog dude is actually getting to the movie’s synopsis and critique now. Oh, thank the Lord! Now please, adjust your lobster bib.)
In short, the life of a cook can get very f*cked up, very often. The chess pieces often get knocked to the floor, regardless of the gambit. Occupational hazard. It’s a hazard Chef Carl Casper has always danced with, but has never dropped his partner onto the floor before. Well, yeah, her too. And his son. And his job. And…
Chef Carl Casper (Favreau) has hit an impasse. Most casual folks call it “life arrest.” But Carl’s a chef. “Life arrest” doesn’t happen, but “career arrest” does. For years, he’s been doing right in his LA bistro by his stuffy, yet prideful, magnanimous owner Riva (Hoffman). After all, Carl was taken on board at Riva’s place being the creative darling of Los Angeles’ culinary scene. Riva gave his financial all the space needed to make his bistro the talk of the town, replete with Carl, his crack kitchen crew and best kitchen tech money could provide. For years all has been hunky dory.
But Carl is not happy.
For weeks, months, years Carl has been churning out the same menu for weeks, months, years. Yeah, sure the sh*t sells, but Carl didn’t get into the cooking biz for a sense of routine. The life of a chef is radical, reckless and very left of center. It’s those aspects that make a cook find time to muck about in a kitchen, grab trapezoidal collections of ingredients and create a rhombus. It’s what got Carl the esteemed position he earned in the first place. It’s what got his cook cronies Tony and Martin (Cannavale and Leguizamo) get so amped and devoted to Carl’s craft. It also got Carl into the pants of the hot maitre’d, Molly (Johansson).
Well, despite all the rewards and comfort hard work earns, coasting never feeds a creative mind. Especially the one of a chef.
Carl sacrificed everything for his craft. His wife. His son. His house. His barely kept in check acceptable social behavior. And at the end of the day, when the rez are covered, when the post-service beers and joints are passed around, when the haughty self-satisfaction has permeated the smoky, boozy air, what’s next?
Right. Next night’s service. And the same, old, menu to serve.
Carl was once the golden child of the LA culinary scene. The next…oh, insert your rock-star chef name here. But that was ten years ago, and like his menu, Carl has become as stale and poorly kept beignets. He’s been riding on not his reputation as chef, but the cachet of the bistro he runs. He gave himself over to the place, hopeful in seeing his culinary dream come to life. Instead, divorce, estranged dad, sh*tty apartment and Riva’s guaranteed-to-be-a-profitable-but-boring-ass menu.
One night, after the gauntlet is thrown down by bigwig, online food critic Ramsey Michel (Platt), Carl feels the fire and is going to knock the socks of this windbag. This influential critic is going to a taste of a brand new menu, guaranteed to both bring good press to Riva’s place and polish Carl’s otherwise tarnished star.
This is when—in the midst of the plan, where as cooks exclaim—things go all pear-shaped.
Carl insists on running his new menu by Riva, but how is it profitable to tweak a money-making menu in order to compete in a d*ck-waving contest? Riva demands Carl to “play the hits.” After enduring a sh*tty review from Ramsey once, Carl can’t take anymore selling out. He bails on his staff, quits and goes home to hammer out the menu he wanted to sell to Ramsey.
Like they say, too little, too late.
After working himself up into a frenzy, Carl crashes his recent ex-kitchen and chews Ramsey out in public in front of some very savvy smartphone jockeys. His tirade goes viral and after this very public meltdown, Carl casts aside his former life and slumps back home to regroup.
Now with no prospects, Carl toys with the idea his ex-wife Inez (Vergara) suggested years ago so he could have complete creative control of a menu: owner of his very own food truck. After a quick vacation back home to Miami, Carl is inspired by the cuisine of his youth, and takes a shot on Inez’ idea. Of course, he’s going to need some help on this new venture, but he’s got no crew anymore, no financial backbone like the restaurant had provided and a very tarnished image as “the lava cake guy” to battle. Who’s gonna want to help this loser?
Right! Carl’s wide-eyed son Percy (Anthony)! Kid’s always been curious about Dad’s job, and with summer break, Percy’s got the time to get his hands dirty.
Well, cooking really ought to be a family affair, even if it’s almost always a dysfunctional one…
Even though the core of Chef is a theme I am wholeheartedly invested in, I was able to separate my sentiments from the actual unfolding plot and cute character study. Don’t get me wrong; of course it was the core that grabbed my attention in the first place. What are y’all, daft? I’ve punctuated many an installment here at RIORI by plugging my day job. You’d think I’d ignore this one? Philistines.
But really, Chef fell under The Standard in the “best” way possible. In recent memory I had never heard such a divided response to a movie. The critics lambasted it, dragging writer/director Favraeu through the mud, not unlike his alter ego Carl. The once cat’s pyjamas of both big budget spectacles and quirky, humorous indie films took a drubbing. Most critics tore apart Chef as derivative, sentimental drivel. Others shrugged and smiled and responded in kind, but weren’t necessary excited about the film. The box office takeaway didn’t exactly set the multiplex on fire either. Chef more or less broke even.
Well, in their defense, the critics were mostly right. Chef does have a case of the cutes running through it, and is given over wholly to the malady by the end of the second act. What starts out as a strong, manic delivery of a chef’s life at work and the life he gave up to be there gets all gooey by the film’s middle.
Audiences, however, love this sh*t. They lapped it up like a kitten with a cream-filled saucer. Admittedly, I did too. Chef is not a movie for cynics, which is odd because the opening scenes set the table—so to speak—for a story about a guy who is weary, frustrated and also driven by his work. It’s so much so that his career takes precedence over his estranged family, a career that seems to be all he is leaning on for emotional support as well as the primary definition of his whole personality. Carl is a prickly, preoccupied man, almost indifferent to everything except his menu. His ex-wife is an irritant. His son is an afterthought. The only people he really considers his family are his crew, and based on his never-ending hours at the restaurant, that’s not hard to understand. As an actor, Favreau has made his mark as a loveable loser, and his Carl as socially awkward and distant invites some much-needed humility and reality therapy to the boorish chef (another thing, Favreau really plumped up for this role. I’m not sure this was deliberate, but it does add an imposing amount of physical bulk to carry along with his emotional issues). Chefs, by nature, are simultaneously irrascable and insecure. Favreau must’ve done some top character study to execute his role as Carl so well.
All this existential angst makes Chef into a rather schizoid movie. On one hand, we have Carl’s job as life and it’s eventual disintegration. His cursory dealings with his actual family paint Carl as callow and just plain inept at being a ex-husband and Disney dad. Not a real huggable kind of guy. There are a lot of rough edges in the first act, and how he and Percy interact is rather strained. How is the audience supposed to sympathize with this irksome guy?
Here’s the other hand, which takes the movie into virtual sudden father-and-son bonding, renewed lust for life, almost family friendly fodder. It’s also where the critics got all snooty in their reviews. The fork in the road comes in the form of Percy. Amjay’s enthusiasm for both trying to have more QT with dad as well as getting in touch with what makes him tick is the anchor here, like for Carl to reality beyond the kitchen. With Carl out of a job, and Percy on summer break, father/son time comes to the fore, and the whole food truck pursuit is the classic Maguffin for a dyed-in-wool crowd pleaser: a road trip movie!
After getting the truck, Carl and Percy’s adventure follows the Hollywood redemption route almost to rote. You kind of see this coming from oceans away. Despite our intro to Carl and his cloistered life, you just know things are going to work out for the best in the end. [SPOILER!] It does, but it’s a fun ride, kind of like comfort food. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
Chef’s story isn’t even close to original, and we’ve seen this warhorse trod out many times over the decades. So you gotta ask, “Hey, blogger. Stuff sounds boring. Predictable. Were the critics right? By the way, we found your pants. How’d they get so far up that flagpole?”
Like with the blues, it’s not about the actual notes, it’s how they’re played. Chef works because of the acting. We got here you’re basic character study cum family relationship tale to spin. All the actors play their roles well, even being the fill-in-the-blank ciphers they are. We’ve got the classics: a nervous chef, his lonely son, the irritating boss, our hero’s goofy sidekick and a tried-and-true villain: the hero himself. Well, that and the stupid food critic, but that’s another thing.
The acting vacillates between serviceable and enjoyable. Sure, we’re working with stereotypes here, but they’re interesting stereotypes. Carl is your textbook manic depressive chef, showing all the hallmarks that position invites. To us cooks, his attitude is par-for-the-course, but to the non-cook he’s doubtless a piece of work, a vehicle average Janes and Joes can ride on to navigate that train of thought. It’s Carl’s supporting cast that makes the movie fun, especially the characters of Percy and Martin.
Amjay’s portrayal of Percy is again another stereotype, but a squishy one that the typical audience will eat up. Percy is a generally nice kid, and his mild but wide-eyed portrayal is honest and endearing. Like other boys, he naturally wants to spend more time with his dad as well as help out in Carl’s time of need. Percy’s learned that being a chef means sacrifices have been made and has consumed dad’s existence at his own peril. Wanting to bond with dad via his profession seems natural. Y’know, to “get it.” It doesn’t hurt that Percy takes to it like a duck to soup, either.
Now Leguizamo’s Martin was a stitch. I usually find this comic actor’s work, well, pesky. He often comes across as a pest, and his acting gets in the way of the plot. Not here. Martin represents the youthful passion and naïveté that Carl must’ve once had at the beginning of his career, and it fits like a glove. Martin cracks jokes, dances in the kitchen, obviously loving what he does and makes sure we damn well feel it too. Martin’s also “the guy who knows a guy.” The Jack Dalton. He’s got connections, to both helping his former boss get out of his slump and keeping the atmosphere positive even under duress. He’s the much-needed spark that keeps the story buoyant and getting too heavy on the whole “mending a family life” bit.
Although the stereotypes played out in Chef were palatable, not all the actors were engaging. Cooking is primarily a man’s, man’s, man’s, man’s world. Usually the only females you’d find in kitchens are on pastry, relegated to the back of the bus. Why this is I know not, but it does prove the rule. The women in Chef kinda reflect this aesthetic. Our females, Johannson and Vergara, are more wallpaper than actual participants in this comedy of errors. I know in the past I’ve alluded that Johannson is not one of my favorites starlets working today. I find her onscreen presence dull and nothing more than a pretty face. She kind of fades into the background, even when she’s trying to kick ass as Black Widow or Lucy. Her wispy style worked wonders in her breakout role in Lost in Translation, but there her character was a drifting, passive woman. You can’t play that card in every film you’re in. She’s playing it here again. Even though she gets minimal screen time in Chef, when she’s in front of the camera she’s just…there, not unlike her real-life analogues baking pies. Her presence here seemed pointless, save giving face time.
Vergara was even more a canard. Ostensibly the voice of reason in Carl’s f*cked-up life—and the person professed with the idea of the food truck, Carl’s eventual redemption and raison d’être—her performance was more or less a glorified cameo. That and to look good. But there was no chemisty, only a disconnect. You can’t even see a woman like that ever being with a guy like Carl, their temperaments so passive-aggressive. Again, she had limited camera time, and what she shared with Favreau was devoid of any sincerity or substance. It was hard to believe that Inez sincerely had her exes’ best interests in mind, despite her kindly, concerned mom nature. In short, Vergara called it in. One wonders with the research Favreau did to write Chef he took to noticing the general absence of estrogen in most restaurant kitchens. It’s reflected here, and over the course of the film it’ll slowly dawn on you that this is a guy movie reflecting a sometimes overly macho career. Cooking is a boys’ club; no girls allowed. Not much room in the movie version either.
Naturally, with the turning of events as they do in Chef, it wouldn’t even been called Chef if it didn’t have something to do with both creating, surrounding and resolving conflicts via cookery. There is a wee bit too much truth to this movie—someone did their research—and Favreau as writer/director was very cagey in dropping some science on the audience about how cheffing can affect almost every aspect of one’s life. The “hotel pan” scene alone speaks volumes, as well as how the matter of the burnt cubano is handled. Carl taking Percy shopping is an eye-opener too (he doesn’t press down on the planche. Nice), especially in the small speech when Carl buys Percy his first chef’s knife. It’s the first time in the movie dad actually bonds with his son, and it’s genuinely touching. Favreau and Anthony have an easy chemistry, and we eventually warm up to Carl through his trying to figure out how to be a father. Again, cooking should be a family affair.
There were a lot of neat scenes to that effect, and wouldn’t go unnoticed by the laymen who had never even stepped into a restaurant kitchen, let alone pick up a sauté pan. Most cooks who went to see Chef—of course all my co-workers did—found it entertaining and mostly accurate (at least with the first act). But just because you’re in the biz didn’t mean the movie was inaccessible to civilians. Quite the opposite; Chef became a family-friendly film, albeit with a lot of blue language, beer swilling and toking. All essential things in a healthy family dynamic, by the way. Granted the bridge between the first and third acts strained a bit, and the movie did have a slick, treacly Hollywood ending, but overall, Chef did a good job. It respected the madcap business antics and politics of restaurant lifers, but didn’t hammer the in-jokes and shop talk over the audiences’ heads like a meat mallet. Yeah, another food analogy. What? What did you expect with a review like this? Dick jokes?
Chef gave me a lot of big grins, both uncomfortable and pleasant with the first and second halves respectively. You could see why most critics would call Chef “drivel” and audiences’ call it “warm.” No new ground got broken here; this whole redemption-through-being-true-to-your-heart-and/or-family schtick has been reheated so many times. Still, the nice touches Favreau adds here and there keep the atmosphere light and overall enjoyable. It was enough to keep this ancient device afloat, and thereby keeping Chef entertaining. That’s all you really need from a good movie anyway.
A final note…
Not long after I left the Farmhouse, the place shut down. Something about the menu going south. I’m not sure I had something to do with that, but on a sick note, I’d like to think so. Just another chapter in the endless novel that is the biz. I said earlier I really don’t understand why I do what I do for a living. After telling my story and watching Chef, tangible answers really aren’t any clearer. I do know one thing though: all that sh*t you see on the Food Network? Bollocks. Cooking’s a reward unto itself, both for the chef and the diner, not a lot of self-aggrandizing, immediate notoriety and endorsements, in addition to oodles of Fieri cash which is few and far between…kinda like the distance between Earth and Alpha Centauri.
No. You can create a mutually happy experience with complete strangers for an evening, and that’s something that can’t easily be done, say, by practicing law or medicine. I guess, like Carl, I do it out of wanting to please people in small ways by introducing a few simple pleasures into their otherwise routine day. Or dinner. I dunno, stuff like that maybe.
Oh yeah. One last thing. I promise.
A few months back at work we had our annual guest chefs’ dinner. It’s where some of the local esteemed chefs come in, put their collective heads together and serve up a five-course menu to an exclusive crowd. I caught wind my former mentor and boss Mike was going to be in attendance. I hadn’t seen him since he left me with pants around my ankles at the Farmhouse all those years ago. Of course I had to punk him.
Upon his arrival, I darted up to my station where I had a chunk of Parmesan moldering in the back of the low boy. I grabbed it then casually strolled down into the prep kitchen were the guest chefs were holding court. I interrupted Mike with a tap on the shoulder and held out the Parm.
“You forgot this on the way out.”
Mike glared at me, grinned and screamed “CHEESEMAN!” loud enough to raise the lame and the halt.
All right, kitchen’s closed. Don’t forget to tip the wait staff, lest they spit in something. Check, please! (Okay, I’ll stop it now. Put down the beer cans.)
Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s charming and delightful in a fluffy kind of way. The movie has two things going for it: Accurate insight into what’s it’s like in the dog-eat-dog world of cooking for the curious, and a lot of happy-go-lucky male bonding for everyone else. By the way, three stars and a bouquet to whichever reader tallies up the number of dumb cooking metaphors I wedged into the review. I lost count.
- That pasta scene? Yes, cooks are that anal. Same goes for the grilled cheese.
- “So is this for sex?”
- For the record, lobster risotto is boring, and Carl’s flat affect reflects that.
- “Be an artist on your own time!” The usual litany.
- I love Martin’s hat. It’s a conversation piece.
- “We are—serving the same sh*t!”
- That’s a big desk.
- “Pays nothing.” “I’ll take it!”
- I love the soundtrack. It foreshadows Carl’s journey towards redemption, don’t it?
- The whole “it’s not from the store” bit made me almost piss myself.
- When I first saw this movie, my wife saw how I was cringing when Riva spoke. “Is that really how it is?” I snickered in assent and slunk ever lower into my seat.
- “In the morning, you can dip your nuts in oil and make hush puppies!” Uh, yum?
- Hey! It’s Amy Sedaris doing one of her characters! Sweet!
- Keep Austin weird.
- “No, chef.” “That’s my son.”
Seth Rogen as The Green Hornet? Great, just what we need: a superhero with his BMI in the upper 20s. Well, it worked for Adam West.